ATLANTA — Lobbyists could not spend more than $75 at a time on public officials under a bill passed Thursday by Georgia's legislators on the final day of their annual session.
The legislation, now headed for Gov. Nathan Deal's desk, would impose the first limits on what lobbyists can spend in Georgia. Lobbyists can now spend as much as they want to influence state legislators and other officials as long as they publicly report their expenditures.
The plan would tighten rules, forcing people to register as lobbyists if they are paid to lobby or get more than $250 in reimbursements for their lobbying work. Both chambers voted unanimously to approve the plan one hour ahead of the midnight deadline on the General Assembly's final working day. The chamber erupted into cheers and applause after the votes.
Any bills not approved by midnight Thursday automatically fail for the year.
"I think it's an improvement, a historic improvement, in our law," House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, told lawmakers. "I think that we can leave here tonight, hold our heads high and know that we did the people's work, and kept faith with the people of Georgia."
There are exceptions to the rules. Lobbyists could spend as much as they want on food, beverages and registration at group events where entire legislative chambers, committees and caucuses are invited. It would restrict those committee events to one per calendar year. Lobbyists could also pay to send public officials and their staff on trips within the United States. An effort to close a loophole allowing attorneys to skirt some lobbying rules failed.
Deal, a Republican, is expected to sign the bill.
"Gov. Deal thinks it's a good first step," Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said in a statement. "He thinks the reforms are appropriate, and he wants to keep an eye on how this is implemented and enforced to make sure it's fulfilling its intended purpose."
Tightening lobbying rules was one of several big decisions expected Thursday. Lawmakers also settled on a $41 billion budget for the fiscal year starting in July, one of the General Assembly's last remaining tasks.
Republican leaders in both chambers had long been divided on how to change lobbying rules. The debate intensified this summer after Georgia voters supported putting limits on lobbyist spending in nonbinding ballot questions.
About 87 percent of voters in the Republican primary election — roughly 827,800 people — voted to support a $100 limit on lobbyist gifts. Nearly 73 percent of voters in the Democratic primary — about 423,800 people — voted in support of stopping unlimited lobbyist spending on lawmakers. That ballot question did not propose a specific limit.
Ralston had opposed restrictions on spending, saying it would encourage lobbyists to make expenditures without publicly disclosing them. But Ralston reversed course in August and backed a ban on lobbyist spending on individual lawmakers. His legislative plan left big exceptions, allowing unchecked spending on legislative committee, delegations and caucuses.
Although the vote in the Senate was unanimous, Sen. Joshua McKoon, R-Columbus, said the ethics bill "reminds me of the old Clint Eastwood movie, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly."
He said he had concerns that the bill did not set an aggregate limit on gifts but said he would vote for it because it was step in the right direction. He encouraged lawmakers to return next year and to consider further restrictions on lobbyist gifts.
The Senate in January adopted an internal rule banning senators from accepting lobbyist gifts worth more than $100. That rule is weaker than the agreement discussed by lawmakers Thursday.
Talks to overhaul state gun laws broke down late Thursday over disagreements about allowing people to carry guns on public college and university campuses. House lawmakers earlier passed a bill allowing people with a weapons license to take their guns onto campus, though not student housing or sporting events. College officials strongly opposed the measure. It failed in the Senate, which adopted less-sweeping firearms legislation this year.
"I'm disappointed we weren't able to reach a timely agreement strengthening our Second Amendment rights," said President Pro Tempore David Shafer, R-Duluth. He noted that the bill remains alive for consideration during the next legislative session.
Lawmakers changed the regulation of video poker and other similar coin-operated machines in the state, opening the door for some proceeds to be directed to the HOPE scholarship program. The legislation moves oversight of the machines to the Georgia Lottery Corp. and away from the state Department of Revenue. The bill had garnered opposition from anti-gambling groups, but supporters said the goal was to crack down on illegal gambling by making it easier to identify rogue machines.
The bill calls for 5 percent of net receipts to be retained and directed to the HOPE scholarship program, reaching a maximum of 10 percent over time.
"It does not make anything legal that was illegal before, and it does provide for the HOPE scholarship," said Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville.
Officials at the Environmental Protection Division failed in a late push Thursday to pass legislation that authorities said was necessary to protect wildlife and guarantee water for farmers in the lower Flint River basin. Environmental watchdog groups criticized the bill as an attack on water rights and a bargaining chip in an ongoing tri-state water dispute among Alabama, Florida and Georgia.